Casting Wider Nets of Compassion

“I think that when people turn on their TVs and see this footage, they’ll say, ‘Oh my God, that’s horrible,’ and then they’ll go back to eating their dinners.”

– The character of Jack Daglish (played by Joaquín Phoenix) in Hotel Rwanda (directed by Terry George, 2004)

No [person] is an island, entire of itself; every [person] is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, [the world] is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any [person]’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in [hu]mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.
–John Donne

Friday’s terrorist attacks in Paris have shaken the world. Prayers and condolences have poured out from everywhere. Social media was immediately lit up with expressions of grief and solidarity with the French people, and Facebook offered us the option to highlight our profile pictures in the colours of the French flag. Many users – myself included – took this option. Almost immediately afterwards, a backlash occurred. People began circulating a BBC News report of the April 2015 terrorist attack in Kenya, and as of this morning it was being listed as the most popular BBC story. Some changed their profile picture to the Lebanese flag, making the point that while Friday’s attacks on Paris dominate the news, Thursday’s bombings in Beirut, which killed 41 and injured more than 200, are hardly mentioned. The reasons for this are clearly summed up in this image which quickly began circulating around social media:

Mappamundi Tragico

As far as the media is concerned, not all tragedies are equal and the number of lives lost or amount of damage done has very little to do with the ways in which we react to the news we hear. Unfortunately, this map of our sentiments is all too true. If a violent event occurs in the United States or Western Europe – the so-called “developed world,”, we react in mass grief and shock – how could this happen to us? If a tragedy occurs in the Middle East or Central America – as it does daily in Syria, Iraq, Honduras and Guatemala – we do not react strongly, as we have come to accept violence as a norm in those countries. And if it occurs in Africa, we barely notice.

One reason for this is clearly the unequal balance of power in the world. Citizens of economically and politically powerful countries have managed to convince themselves – and some people in the rest of the world – that their countries matter more. For Europeans and Americans, Paris is the epitome of culture, a place we’ve either visited or hope to visit. As a friend of mine, the Mexican-Canadian writer Martha Bátiz put it, “The heart of Western civilization has been wounded, but you will not destroy or weaken what it stands for: civilization, erudition, knowledge, the beaux arts, the cradle of freedom, solidarity and equality. You will never defeat Paris.”

Then, there is the simple issue that it is easier to relate to people who are close by than those who live far away from us. I often get frustrated when my parents, tuned into the television news almost every waking hour, express their worries about the United States of America’s political and economic future while making little mention of the rest of the world. “This is my own country – it’s just easier to relate to,” my mother said, somewhat apologetically.

In a world that is ever more interconnected, with large-scale interconnected problems such as global terrorism, war, environmental degradation, depletion of resources, poverty, hunger and mass migration, it is clear that this attitude of seeing some parts of the world as more significant than others is no longer possible, much less ethical. There is one world, and we all share it – whether we live in Canada or Cambodia, Sweden or Sudan.

The next question, then, is what are we to do? How are we to proceed? As I have written before, our human capacity for empathy is great but finite, and we seem to be naturally predisposed to care more about the suffering of those close by than those far away. Moreover, we all suffer from “scope insensitivity,” the tendency to react more strongly to the suffering or death of a few people than to a large number. Hence the famous quotation attributed to Joseph Stalin: “The death of one man is a tragedy; the death of millions a statistic.”

In recent years, a small but growing movement has set out to resist these tendencies. Founded in the past five years by philosophers Peter Singer, Toby Ord, William MacAskill and others, the Effective Altruism movement urges people to focus on donating their time and money to those causes that will produce the most social good. One of the central starting premises for Effective Altruism is a commitment to focus on causes and issues that are being neglected by mainstream charities. Another underlying assumption is that all human lives hold the same amount of intrinsic value – thus, an American life is not worth more than a Senegalese life. And since it is less expensive to save lives in Africa than in the United States, we should focus our attention to the former. Charity Evaluators such as Givewell and Giving What We Can focus on helping to rate charities in terms of lives saved per dollar, and the ones that come out on top are often organizations that most of us have not heard of, such as the GiveDirectly, the Deworm the World Initiative, and the Against Malaria Foundation – charities that are usually driven by locals have been evaluated as having the most impact.

I do not identify as an effective altruist for many reasons – a discussion of these is beyond the scope of this post. I applaud this movement for its global focus, its determination to overcome the natural limits of our empathy and see the world as one, interconnected entity where all people matter. At the same time, I object to its premise that we have to make hard choices, constantly weighing one option against the other, focusing on certain groups of people at the expense of others. Effective altruism involves looking at some issues or groups of people and saying “This is important” while looking at others and saying “This is not so important.” An effective altruist would probably say that this kind of either-or mentality is a basic necessity for any kind of action. We all have limited amounts of time, energy, and money; we cannot donate to every worthy cause in the world; we cannot volunteer for every charity.

However, I believe that our capacity for compassion and action is actually much greater than we might assume. Indeed, the rapid spread of online messages urging people not to limit their empathy to the people of Paris but instead to extend it to all people facing violence is proof that we can cast wider nets of compassion; we can think of those who are far along with those are close. For me, this is a tremendous source of hope.

For much of human history it was virtually impossible for us to identify with anyone beyond our kinship network; later, we learned to relate to people who shared language and religion rather than mere bloodlines. The emergence of nation states in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries led people to identify with even greater numbers of people. Today, we are starting to realize that the borders of a nation cannot form the borders of our compassion.

I believe that we are capable of crusading for activist causes while being devoted heads of families; we have the capacity to donate to the Against Malaria Foundation as well as our local symphony; we can pray for peace in Paris, Beirut, Baghdad, Syria, Nigeria, El Salvador, Mexico and all places torn apart by violence. As the social media response to Friday’s tragedy reveals, we are capable of recognizing ourselves as part of this same beautiful, terrible, fragile, messy, deeply interconnected world.

About Jeannine Pitas
  • Agellius

    I don’t feel more sympathy for the French victims than I do for other victims, just because they’re French or European or white, or because they’re closer. I feel equal sympathy for Christian villages burned and pillaged by ISIS in the Middle East, and for kidnapped schoolgirls in Nigeria. The news in Paris was simply more shocking because richer, more developed countries are generally safer and more secure than poorer ones. This makes us realize our own vulnerability to this kind of thing, in a way in which tragedies in less developed countries do not.

  • Mark VA

    I agree with your conclusions, Jeannine.

    A good argument can be made that the narrow view of humanity you describe so well, is in some part a consequence of a historical framework called the “The Allied Scheme of History” (Davies, “Europe”, pp. 39-41). In this vein, here is how one author, Anne Applebaum, describes her epiphany:

    http://www.newcriterion.com/articles.cfm/oldcliches-applebaum-3340

    As I think of the macro trajectory of the past few decades, I feel optimistic that such overly constrictive (and not to mention, self-serving) historical frameworks are waning. Let me close on a musical note – here is how “epiphany” sounds to my ears (KV 201, 1st movement):

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XAxyas7t32Y

  • Roger

    Its been a brutal week and a half for victims of Islamic terrorism. From Beirut to Paris to Israel to Nigeria and to today Mali. I and most people mourn for ALL victims who were killed, injured or effected by terrorism – perpetrated always by extremist muslims.

    • http://anotherliberalcatholic.wordpress.com jeanninemariedymphna

      “Extremist” is the key word here. The vast majority of Muslims do not approve of groups like IS.

      • Mark VA

        I think this subject is vastly more complex than just Muslim attitudes regarding ISIL/ISIS:

        http://www.pewforum.org/files/2013/04/worlds-muslims-religion-politics-society-full-report.pdf

        Learning the history of the Christian/Muslim interaction often means having to educate oneself using many scholarly sources – not an easy feat. A fun preliminary exercise may be to separate the facts from fables regarding the origins of the croissant – for extra credit, ditto for Turkish Coffee.